The Pirates are winners again

The front cover of the sports section of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The front cover of the sports section of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on 9/10/2013

I will never forget this day.

It is done. After 20 miserable, pathetic, impotent, embarrassing years, our Pittsburgh Pirates are guaranteed a winning season. Once a year, usually in September, I launch a Facebook tirade about the Buccos breaking my heart and how I continually let them because I’ll never stop being a Pirates fan. But finally, now I get to take a different tone. I get to convey a sentiment of pride and hopefulness, and well, joy. Pure, unadulterated joy. Every Pirates fan is feeling the same thing I’m sure and ladies and gentleman, it’s an extraordinary feeling.

So here’s to 82 and burying the curse of Sid Bream and Francisco Cabrera. Here’s to forgetting that Barry Bonds couldn’t throw out one of the worst runners in the majors. Here’s to forgetting Operation Shutdown. Here’s too burying 57-105 in 2010. Here’s to forgetting John Russell, Jim Tracy, Pete Mackanin, Lloyd McClendon, and Gene Lamont. Here’s to wiping the memory away of Dave Littlefield and every other inadequate front office bozo that disgraced a rich baseball tradition in a city that could have never imagined such inadequacy after 1992.

Here’s to Clint Hurdle, love him or hate him, he was at the helm of the most historic (and positive) event for the Pirates in TWO DECADES. Here’s to the Pirates ownership and front office, who have finally addressed futility and found a winning combination. Here’s to the Texas Rangers, who, although are a good team in their own right, suffered a true defeat to put smiles on the faces of thousands (millions?) of Pirates fans around the globe. Here’s to the Pirates organization for overcoming the insanity of Kyle Stark and Hoka Hey. And finally, here’s to all of the fans who have kept the faith through all these years, despite overwhelming ineptitude and disappointment.

We don’t know if the Pirates will have a winning season again next year, or in the next 20 years, for that matter, but right now they are winners. Enjoy it Pittsburgh. You’ve earned it.

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A quick thought on Pittsburgh patience

We live in a right now, knee jerk, gotta have it yesterday, instantaneous society. It’s a fact that’s tough to argue against when fewer and fewer people are willing to wait a day for their news in a paper and prefer to get breaking information over their Twitter feed, whether it’s confirmed as true or not. It’s a reactionary culture that’s quick to condemn, redeem or otherwise forget anyone or anything that seems to impact our existence at any given time.

Because sports tend to be a large part of many of our lives, it’s not surprising how quickly we decide what the state of our teams are or will be in the near future.

A good example is the firing today of Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown after FIVE games. Did he deserve it? Maybe, but it seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to say the least.

Or how about the Duke lacrosse scandal a few years ago? That team was condemned by the media and public for alleged sexual assault crimes, only to be pardoned after due process and ultimately forgiven.

As difficult as it may be and as frustrating as it sounds, everybody needs to slow down and take a breath. We must all wait a bit to gather our thoughts and let the world play out before we pound the gavel and execute or dismiss. And because of recent events in the Steel City, this is especially true for Pittsburgh sports fans.

Last Sunday, the Steelers executed their finest win of the season, defeating the Super Bowl champion Giants 24-20. And despite horrendous officiating, the Steelers dominated much more than the final score suggested. Eli Manning – the owner of two very large rings and two MVPs to go with them – was held to just 125 yards and completed only 10 completions on 24 attempts. The Giants passing game was stagnant. Their run game was stifled (the G-Men racked up only 68 yards on the ground).

Not only was it an outstanding defensive performance reminiscent of the Steel Curtain teams fans fondly remember, the black and gold also put together a sound performance on the offensive side of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger went 21-30 and threw for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. Back-up running back Isaac Redman carried the ball 26 times for 147 yards and a touchdown. The offensive line opened up holes big enough to drive a garbage truck through. The pass game clicked. The run game cruised. Everything went to plan.

Just about every way you look at it, this game was in stark contrast to what the Steelers looked like through the first five games of the season. At that point, they were 2-3 and suffered brutal losses including two to the Raiders and Titans, two of the worst teams in the league. Pittsburgh ranked dead-last in rushing and the defense allowed an average of 23 points per game while blowing a number of fourth-quarter leads.

They just didn’t look like the Steelers. Had the Browns changed their colors to black and gold? Did Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau go on mental vacations?

But after leaving Tennessee with their tail between their legs following a 26-23 loss, it seemed like something started to click. The game plans looked better and the execution was far superior. They went into Cincinnati and shut down Andy Dalton and A.J. Green (who is a top-five receiver in the NFL this year). Pittsburgh trounced rookie phenom and the Redskins 27-12. They finally looked like the Steelers again and everyone’s doubts went out the window and started to drown at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.

But the problem is, there was never any reason to hit the panic button in the first place, even after losing to Oakland and Tennessee. Sure, the team looked out of sorts, but it was still quite early in the season and the rest of the AFC (minus the Houston Texans) looked no better. Pundits on national radio and television were killing the Steelers. Colin Cowheard of ESPN Radio said that the Steelers were too old defensively and they couldn’t produce well enough to be an upper-echelon team. Now the Steelers are 5-3, only one game back of first place in the AFC North and everyone is once again calling them contenders.

Here’s some advice to all fans and media: Avoid the waffling in the first place and wait until at least halfway through a season before declaring this or that about any team in professional sports. There’s something called a turnaround and we should all be well aware of it by watching the Giants the past few years. If they’ve taught us anything, it’s that all you have to do is make it to the postseason and then anything is possible.

Pirates fans learned this lesson the hard way over the last two years. The team started off their last two campaigns in excellent fashion. Both teams spent time in first place in the NL central division and it appeared that they would be locks to end 19- and 20-year losing skids. But both collapsed. We were all left wondering what happened and how it was possible. But it certainly was possible, if it wasn’t realistic, for both the 2011 and 2012 Pirates to blow up winning seasons because that’s sports. It’s not predictable in many cases for better or for worse. That’s what makes them great in the first place. Anything can happen.

And even now after Pirates owner Bob Nutting has decided that his inexperienced, sometimes hair-brained front office is staying intact, that doesn’t mean the team can’t have a winning season in 2013. Does it seem likely? Absolutely not. But stranger things have happened. I suppose it might be easier to expect the Pirates to be bad next season so that if we are surprised, it’s a pleasant one.

The same goes for the Penguins last year. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fluery, we’ve come to expect greatness from the Penguins recently. Not just Pittsburghers either. Last season, Vegas had the Penguins pegged as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. And after the regular season, it looked increasingly likely. The Pens finished second in the East and with Sidney Crosby finally healthy again and Evgeni Malkin having assumed the role of best player in the world, the only team that could beat the Penguins was the Penguins.But then they clashed with the Flyers in a less-than-heroic fashion and were defeated in six games. And entire season blew up in two weeks. Fluery, who had won a Cup in 2009, looked like Swiss cheeses as pucks easily found their way past him. Evgeni Malkin didn’t look the same as he did as the MVP in the regular season. Everyone let their expectations get the better of them because the Penguins were SUPPOSED to win. And should the NHL season happen this year, the Penguins are again the favorites to win it all.

Let’s just hold off on that judgement now.

Is it possible the Penguins and Pirates will collapse again? Yes. Is it likely? For the Penguins, no. For the Pirates. Maybe. But we shouldn’t engrave Sidney Crosby on the Cup yet and we shouldn’t fire Clint Hurdle before the season begins.

It’s best not to let any expectations get in the way of our sports. Just watch, listen and enjoy. Let the surprises work themselves out and let fate do what it does.

The 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope may have put it best when he said “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

The Pittsburgh Logos Project

Before this season, the Toronto Blue Jays, Florida Marlins and Baltimore Orioles all announced some changes to their look before the season.  The Marlins completely altered their identity. They are now the Miami Marlins and have new colors, logos, uniforms and a new ball park to boot. The Blue Jays and Orioles simply changed their logos back to similar designs they used in the past.

Without question, tons of money was spent in all three cases so the teams could develop these logos, generate interest and marketing campaigns for them, and ultimately decide if they would help the public perception of those teams. (A friend of mine works for the company that rebranded the Marlins and he informed me that the transition was no small financial or physical undertaking.)

Although the Marlins and the Blue Jays both failed to make the playoffs, the Orioles powered their way into the postseason and lost to the Yankees in the ALDS. Regardless, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles and their revamped logo will be thought of as a winning team, especially compared to most other Orioles teams in recent history.

Ultimately that’s what matters.

In my opinion, the primary goal of a logo change is to associate the new logo with a winning team (and winning tradition) and to be accepted by the fans as a true seal of that franchise, both presently and historically. If both of these criteria are met, then merchandise revenue will go through the roof and people will instantly recognize a symbol and think “winner.”

There are a few “winner” symbols that are recognized across the U.S.: the Yankees’ “NY,” the Detroit Redwings’ winged wheel, and of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ triple hypocycloids all come to mind. These are iconic logos long associated with winning, just like the McDonald’s arches is an icon long associated with obesity.

Recently, the success of the Orioles and their new logo got me thinking about the success of the Steel City and its logos.

Pittsburgh has had its fair share of winners throughout its professional sports history. The Steelers have six championships while the Pirates and Penguins have won five and three, respectively. Even without mentioning championships, the Steelers and Pirates are historically winning franchises; the Steelers have a .523 all-time win percentage and the Pirates are at .503 all time. And the Penguins aren’t far behind with an all-time points percentage (points divided by maximum possible points) of .497.

So here’s the question I posed: Where do all the professional Pittsburgh sports logos rank all time in win percentage amongst the three teams?

To answer this question, I keyed in on a few very helpful resources. Using Chris Creamer’s Sports Logos Page – www.sportsLogos.net (“Your virtual museum dedicated to education of the history of sports logos and sports uniforms.”), I was able to identify practically every logo that the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins ever used. There were a few gaps in which the franchises played but no logos are listed, but for the most part the information is relatively comprehensive. Then, I cross-referenced the logo’s years with the statistical data of each team using www.pro-football-reference.com, www.hockey-reference.com and www.baseball-reference.com.

I compiled all the information and boiled it down to an easy-to-read catalogue of black and gold (and red and blue and a surprising array of other colors used in Pittsburgh logo history) for your browsing pleasure. At the bottom of this entry are charts indicating the chronological order of the logos used for each franchise, as well as each logo’s all-time franchise rank and all-time Pittsburgh rank in win percentage. Before those, you’ll find the win percentage ranking, one by one, of all the logos ever used by the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins.

Disclaimer: Before you check out the list, there are a few things you should know. All the information below is based on the primary logo for each team at that time. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the logo used on the uniforms or even the logo you were most used to seeing most of the time. All of these franchises have used alternate logos throughout their histories (which you might have thought were the “main” logos), but those are not included in this list.

 Secondly, to compare logos across different sports, I used win percentages for football and baseball and points percentage for hockey. They aren’t the same statistic, but both are the most useful in their respective sports to judge the amount of winning the teams had done. Also, ties have a different statistical bearing in the NFL than they do in MLB AND the NHL. Since 1972, the NFL has counted each tie a half a win. So you’re not confused, I counted all ties (even before 1972) into my win percentages for the Steelers.

 Finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really doubt there is some type of correlation between win percentage and a primary logo. There have been some studies that suggest there is a correlation between uniform colors and winning, but remember, these primary logos didn’t necessarily appear on the uniforms of the teams they represented. I’m no scientist, but I’m guessing the teams in this list with the highest winning percentages probably would have won just as much had they been represented by any other primary logo.

This is not a scientific study that is meant to be broken down and analyzed in terms of WHY certain logos were successful and WHY others were not. I’m just revealing that some WERE and others WERE NOT. Perhaps the Pirates logo from 1908-1909 had magical powers. Or perhaps it was because those years just happened to feature one of the greatest Pirates to ever play baseball. (I’m guessing the latter.)

 So why, you ask, did I take all the time and do all the work for this list?

 For the sake of fun and curiosity. And because I knew I would uncover some interesting stuff.

Here are some of the fun facts I discovered:

  • The first three primary logos for both the Steelers and Penguins were all losers.
  • The Pirates first primary logo with a win percentage under .500 was their fifth (1915-1919).
  • The longest tenure for any one logo in Pittsburgh is the Steelers fourth franchise logo, which was used for 32 years (1969-2001).
  • The logo with the most championships in Pittsburgh history (four) is also the Steelers fourth franchise logo (1969-2001).
  • The Pirates have had only three logos with losing records in team history (1915-1919, 1948-1959, and 1997-Present).
  • The Pittsburgh logo with the lowest all-time win percentage was the first primary logo for the Steelers. At that time, they were the Pittsburgh Pirates. Go figure. The uniforms worn by the team using that logo are the current Steelers’ throwback uniforms.
  • The Steelers primary logo was actually changed after the 2001 season. Even though it looks practically identical, the new logo (used from 2002 to the present) features slightly darker colors throughout.
  • The Pirates changed their logo 10 times in the franchise’s first 35 years and each time the change was to another depiction of a “P.”
  • Out of the three current primary logos used by the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins, only the Steelers’ logo ranks among of the top 10 all-time Pittsburgh logos in win percentage.
  • All Pittsburgh franchises featured both black and gold in their logos from their inception – except for the Pirates, who didn’t use both colors in their primary logo until 1948.
  • The most successful Pirates logo (and Pittsburgh logo) was used from 1908-1909. Those years also featured arguably the greatest player in Pirates history, Honus Wagner. One of the rarest and most valuable baseball cards in existence is a Wagner card from 1909.
  • Both of the current throwback/alternate uniforms for the Steelers and Penguins were from teams represented by logos with the lowest win percentage each franchise’s respective history (1933-1939 Steelers, 1968/69-1970/71 Penguins).
  • The Pirates are the only Pittsburgh franchise to use the same logo during two, non-consecutive periods in team history (1921 and 1932).
  • All three franchises have used the color blue in the primary logos at some point in their history.
  • Sixty-five percent of all Pittsburgh professional primary logos are winners (17 of 26). Thirteen of those winning logos are from the Pirates franchise.

If there’s anything else you notice and I didn’t mention before, feel free to let me know. But above all else…

Enjoy.

 Starting with the primary logo with the lowest win percentage in Pittsburgh professional sports history…

24. 1933-1939 Pittsburgh Steelers (Pittsburgh Pirates)

Record: 22-55-3

Win percentage: .293%

23. 1968/69-1970/71 Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 67-120-43

Points percentage: .384%

22. 1960-1968 Pittsburgh Steelers

Record: 45-72-7

Win percentage: .391%

21. 1948-1959 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 770-1077-10

Win percentage: .417%

20. 1997-Present Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 1115-1473-1

Win percentage: .430%

19. 1915-1919 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 325-401-9

Win percentage: .451%

18. 1967/68 Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 27-34-13

Points percentage: .453%

17. 1971/72-1991/92 Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 654-799-221

Points percentage: .456%

16. 1951-1959 Pittsburgh Steelers

Record: 48-57-3

Win  percentage: .458%

T-15. 1936-1947 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 926-909-24

Win percentage: .504%

T-15. 1987-1996 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 787-765-2

Win percentage: .504%

14. 1920 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 79-75-1

Win percentage: .513%

13. 1968-1986 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 1577-1431-3

Win percentage: .523%

12. 1960-1967 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 680-599-3

Win percentage: .532%

11. 2000/01-Present Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 428-363-80

Points percentage: .536%

T-10. 1910-1914 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 411-350-13

Win percentage: .540%

T-10. 1933-1935 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 247-210-1

Win percentage: .540%

9. 1922 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 85-69-1

Win percentage: .552%

8. 1923-1931 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 778-602-8

Win percentage: .563%

7. 1921/1932 Pittsburgh Pirates

Combined record: 176-131-1

Combined win percentage: .573%

6. 1969-2001 Pittsburgh Steelers

Record: 292-209-1

Win percentage: .582%

5. 1907 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 91-63-3

Win percentage: .591%

4. 1992/93-1999/00 Pittsburgh Penguins

Record: 331-214-75-6

Points percentage: .595%

3. 1900-1906 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 639-377-12

Win percentage: .630%

2. 2002-Present Pittsburgh Steelers

Record: 107-57-1

Win percentage: .651

1. 1908-1909 Pittsburgh Pirates

Record: 208-98-3

Win percentage: .680%

Here’s the breakdown by chronological order and franchise…

(CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE, THEN CLICK YOUR BACK BUTTON TO RETURN TO BLOG ENTRY)

SOLO IN ENEMY TERRITORY PROJECT PART 1: PIRATES VS. METS

I remember the first thing I looked for when the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2012 season schedule was released.

I was sitting on my bed in my small but adequate Brooklyn apartment. On the walls around me hung a No. 14 Wally Richardson Penn State jersey, a No. 39 Willie Parker Steelers jersey and a No. 58 Jack Lambert Steelers jersey. And hanging on the wall at the foot of my bed was my Pirates jersey, the last thing I saw every night before I fell asleep.

As I scanned the schedule, I looked for any games the Pirates would have against either the Yankees or the Mets. I’d be able to watch all of those games, home or away, on my local television channels. It’s far more enjoyable to watch baseball on my 36-inch TV than using MLB.TV on my tiny laptop screen. But more importantly than the television schedule, I wanted to know if the Pirates were coming to New York City.

I’ve lived in New York for more than two years now and that means I’ve had to battle the distance between here and Pittsburgh. I grew up about two hours away from the Steel City so it was relatively easy to go to a Pirates, Steelers or Penguins game (and they were all on local TV to boot). But in New York, I have to work around that. I subscribe to MLB.TV. I purchase NHL Game Center. I have DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket. None of these subscriptions is cheap, but that’s the price I pay for fanhood.

I saw that the Pirates had three-game series in against the Mets in late May, but it was in Pittsburgh. That meant that the Buccos would be heading the Queens later in the season. So I continued to scroll through the schedule until I hit September. There I found the series I was looking for: four games against the Mets at Citi Field from the 24th to the 27th.

The late-season series meant two things. If one or both of the teams were somehow in playoff contention at that point, then it would be a more expensive ticket. But that would also mean seeing a contending team or two close to the playoffs and it could have serious implications. Fun.

But the more likely scenario would mean that both teams were way out of playoff contention by then (not fun), but tickets would be dirt cheap. The previous season, a friend and I went to a Pirates/Mets game at Citi Field in September. The combined cost of the tickets was $4.

Regardless of the scenario, I was going.

The entire 2012 season was in preparation of this series for me, and by the time July rolled around, I believed I would be going to see the first Pirates team in 19 years to finish as winners. I worried that the tickets might gut my wallet, but money was no issue when it came to my teams.

On Sunday, Sept. 23, I went online to find tickets for my long-awaited series. Surprise, surprise, the cheap seats were single digits. This was the product of an epic collapse, the second of the kind in two years for the Pirates. They were 75-77, 6 1/2 games back of the National League wild card, 16 1/2 games back of the division leading Reds and the Buccos needed to win seven of their final 10 games to finish with a winning season.

The Mets were in even worse shape than the Pirates. They were 69-83, 12 1/2 games back of the wild card and 23 games back of the division lead.

These were two pathetic teams butting heads in September. This series couldn’t be about dignity for the Mets, they had lost that long ago. This series was about finishing strong for their fans at home. This was also a chance for David Wright to become the Mets all-time hits leader (he was only a handful away and would face a crumbling Pirates rotation).

For the Pirates (if they were optimists), this was about creeping above .500 against a team who had no such chance. But from the looks of them, the Pirates are not a team of optimists and even with a sweep of the Mets, they hardly stood a chance in winning three more games against the division leading Reds and the No. 1 wild card Braves.

I decided to go to three of the four games. Four would have been nice, but I was still suffering the effects of a heavy football weekend and Monday didn’t seem like an ideal time to schlep myself through three subway lines and two transfers. I convinced a friend to accompany me to the Thursday day game (which wasn’t that difficult considering she was a Mets fan and that was the day R.A. Dickey would go for his 20th win), but I would go the Tuesday and Wednesday night contests alone. Here’s what the first two tickets cost me:

Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets at Citi Field, Flushing, NY

Tue, 09/25/2012, 7:10 p.m. EDT

Promenade Infield 513 | 1 ticket

Row 2 | Seat 9

Billing review

Price per ticket: $10.00

Quantity: x 1

Subtotal: $10.00

Service fee: + $5.00

Delivery services: + $5.45

Order total: $20.45

 

Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets at Citi Field, Flushing, NY

Wed, 09/26/2012, 7:10 p.m. EDT

Promenade Outfield 535 | 1 ticket

Row 1 | Seat 5

Comments: Actual 1st row of section

Billing review

Price per ticket: $2.59

Quantity: x 1

Subtotal: $2.59

Service fee: + $5.00

Delivery services: + $5.45

Order total: $13.04

 

The grand total cost me $33.49. That’s an average of $16.74 per game. The games would probably leave much to be desired but I believe it’s a fair price to pay for a nice night at a pro ball park.

 Disclaimer: For the purposes of this blog, I am documenting only the first two games of the three I went to. These were the only times in my life I’ve attended any away Pirates games alone and those are the experiences I wish to explore and share.

Before I went to the games, I decided to pick a different style of how I would experience each game. For the Tuesday game, I’d simply take in the fan experience as most do. I’d show up early, find my seat and buy a Nathan’s hotdog and a Budweiser. I wanted to feel the game rather than watch it. I wasn’t going to pay strict attention to the details of the game like a stat geek. I wouldn’t keep score and I’d just have fun with it. I wanted to converse with some other fans and take note of how it all felt. How was the atmosphere? Were there very many people there? Did anyone care that I was decked out in Pirates gear? I wanted the big picture of how I felt to be at the ball park without the soul focus being on balls, strikes and keeping track of the relievers’ strike totals.

For the Wednesday game, I’d keep a strict scorecard. I didn’t want to talk to others and I didn’t want to get Twitter analysis about the game. I just wanted to focus on the less common fan experience. It would be the baseball nerd experience. I figured this one would be easier and ultimately more satisfying considering I was by myself.

Game 1 (Game 2 of the Pirates vs. Mets series at Citi Field) Tue, 09/25/2012, 7:10 p.m.

I donned my lucky generic Pirates jersey (which clearly is only lucky in the sense that I’ve never been killed while wearing it) and stepped out of my apartment to head for Citi Field. I live in Brooklyn, about 6 1/2 miles from the stadium. I walked two blocks from my apartment to the subway in absolutely terrific weather. It was a mild combination of the crisp, incoming fall mixed with the remaining sunny remnants of summer. It was about 69 degrees with clear skies. I remember thinking, “The only thing that could ruin this perfect baseball weather is the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

The previous night, the Buccos lost the series opener 2-6. They managed eight hits, but didn’t score until the eighth inning. By then, I had already turned the game off. Following the loss, they held a record of 75-78 and needed to win seven of their final nine games to finish over .500 for the first time in 19 years. Their remaining games after the Mets series were against Cincinnati and Atlanta, two teams that had already punched their tickets to the postseason. For the Pirates to have any chance at a winning season, it was essential that they win at least three games against the pathetic Mets. That would put them at .500 for the final two series and they would need to win four of their final six. If they wanted to make up ground, they had to do it against the Mets.

I had my doubts.

Once the 7 train stopped at Mets/Willets Point, hoards of enthusiastic Mets and Pirates fans poured out of the train doors and eagerly dashed towards the gates of the stadium.

Just kidding.

Once the train lurched to a stop, a handful of fans emerged and trudged towards Citi Field. Nothing about this crowd made it apparent there were any sports fans on board. Not only was there a distinct absence of Pirates jerseys and hats (which is understandable), I couldn’t tell if these folks were Mets fans, either. There was an orange “NY” logo here and there, but for the most part, it was an after-work crowd that found no value in bringing a Mets shirt or hat to the office for later.

It was about 40 minutes until first pitch when I reached the gates of the stadium. A vendor standing outside caught sight of me and said, “Sign up for the New York Times, get a free jacket. Guaranteed to cover up all Pirates jerseys.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, I was hoping I’d get a lot more witty banter from the opposition. But it never happened after that. This was how irrelevant the Pirates had become. New York fans – some of the most loud and potentially obnoxious fans I’ve ever come across – were silent. Maybe it was because the Mets were 70-83 at this point and their fans weren’t enthusiastic about anything, but I’ve never heard New York fans have such utter disregard for disregarding other teams. Without anyone actually telling me so, it felt as though these people felt sorry for me.

You want to know what rock bottom feels like? Have a Mets fan feel sorry for you.

Things weren’t much livelier inside the stadium. With about 30 minutes until game time, the stands were 3/4 empty. It was the meaningless wasteland that is irrelevant September baseball for Mets and Pirates fans alike.

After purchasing my $7.50 Budweiser and my $6 Nathan’s dog, I headed up to section 513, Promenade Infield.

The masses gather in Queens for September baseball.

It was one of the better seats I’ve had for a ball game, especially at Citi. It featured an unblocked view from behind home plate and a great perspective for wherever the ball could be sprayed. I glanced around my section once I sat down. It looked like the auditorium in last five minutes of a middle school talent show. A few people here, a family over there, but mostly emptiness.

That’s when I spotted the first Pirates gear other than mine. A few rows to my right sat a middle-aged man wearing a Salomon Torres jersey, No. 16, circa 2007. If you don’t remember who Torres is, that’s OK, neither does Sammy Sosa.

You can instantly tell a lot about a fan just by the jersey they’re wearing. Torres was a decent player for the Pirates, but still rather forgettable. In six years in the Steel City, he went 26-28 with a 3.63 ERA and 29 saves. So when you see a guy wearing his jersey five years later, you know he’s probably a devoted fan (not to mention the fact he was at that game in particular).

I felt the need to connect with the Torres adorer so I walked over to his seat started up a conversation. As it turns out, he was just the type of fan I suspected.

I believe three types of Pirates fans exist:

  1. Those who were Pirates fans, but not anymore.
  2. Those who are technically Pirates fans, but seem constantly annoyed by the Pirates and tend to be pessimistic, regardless if the Buccos are winning or not. You’ll find a lot of overlap with this group and those affectionately known as Yinzers.
  3. Those who are Pirates fans, always were and always will be. They are the rarest of the three categories. They don’t seem to mind losing, but certainly would love to see the team win. They’ll stick with the team regardless what happens. These are the true Pirates fans.

I was lucky because my new friend was a Class 3 Pirates fan.

“I’m not optimistic the Pirates will be good any time soon, but I’m optimistic I’ll always be a Pirates fan. I absolutely love this team,” he told me. “They could be terrible for 50 more years and I’d still love ‘em.

He was from West Virginia, but lived on the South Side of Pittsburgh for 10 years. When he lived in the Burgh, he attended 30-40 games a year, usually sporting one of the jerseys of his three favorite Pirates: Franquelis Osaria, Torres and Brian Giles. He told me he moved to New York two years ago and has missed only one Pirates game in Queens since.

When I asked him why he was such a devoted fan and why he came out to such a bad series with the Mets, he referenced the Pirates as lovable losers.

“They’re just so bad, you can probably meet them,” he joked. “And going to these games is cheaper than a movie and twice as fun.”

Ahhh, a baseball purist that found himself caught in the Pirates’ tangled web. Always brings a tear to my eye.

After our brief conversation, we gave each other one last “Go Bucs” and I headed back to my seat.

The game was entertaining in spurts, but also mind-numbingly long. I didn’t leave the stadium until well after 10:30. Total game time: 3 hours 26 minutes. Both teams used a combined 12 pitchers. Managers from both teams argued several calls throughout the game. There were nine coach’s visits to the mound. There were two injury delays. There were 7,342 foul balls. It just went on and on and by the time the fourth inning rolled around, the temperature had dropped about 20 degrees and it was football weather. After the final pitch of the game, the scoreboard reflected a football score – Pirates 10, Mets 6.

All and all, it was still a fun experience but mostly because the Pirates ended up on top. The win put them in a better position to finish the season with a winning record, but it reflected the most possible season outcome: a 20th year of futility. Starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez threw well for five of his six innings, but he gave up a first inning two-run homer. And once he ran out of steam and was taken out after the sixth, reliever Chris Resop gave up three runs on two hits and walked one AND WAS IN FOR ONLY 1/3 OF AN INNING.

The Pirates committed one error while the Mets committed two. The pitching on both sides was weak and the game was sloppy. Total attendance was 25,286 but I’ll never believe there were that many people there. Everything about the game was exactly what I expected.

I arrived home around midnight, tired, cold and numb. I’ve had worse baseball experiences, but I’ve had a lot better. If the Pirates had lost, I’d still be cursing.

Game 2 (Game 3 of the Pirates vs. Mets series at Citi Field) Wed, 09/26/2012, 7:10 p.m.

 My excursion for Game 2 began the same way as Game 1: jersey on, subway to Citi. Once I got there, I noticed an immediate difference. There were a lot more Pirates fans. Even though I was 40 minutes early, I saw exponentially more Buccos hats and jerseys than the night before. This game was the same time and on a week night, just like the previous night. But it was the night following a victory. There was still a little bit of optimism left in Pirates Nation and the atmosphere was palpable. There were even a few “let’s go Bucs” chants that faintly echoed through the stadium.

Because of this optimism, the Pirates had one of their worst games of the season and lost in unspectacular fashion, because that’s what happens when the universe realizes Pirates fans have hope. Final score: Mets 6, Pirates 0. The Pirates managed only three hits, two of which of which came off the bat of Pedro Alvarez. Pittsburgh committed an error and never stood a chance. Mets pitcher Jeremy Hefner (2-7 before that game) looked like a super-star, striking out seven and walking only one.

What could make a game like this even worse? Keeping a detailed scorebook, of course. I predicted that I would enjoy keeping score during the game more than just sitting back and watching. After all, I consider myself a stat guy and always found it fun to look back on the numbers and know exactly what happened. I’m a baseball nerd at heart. But unfortunately, I’m also a Pirates fan. And let me tell you, the only thing more wrenching than witnessing your team get kicked around the diamond is meticulously charting it as it happens.

On the Pirates side of my score sheet, I got to connect first and second base ONCE (almost twice, but I had to stop the line halfway because Starling Marte got caught stealing). I drew eight Ks (three of them backwards). I ran out of boxes to put Pirates pitchers in (they finished the game with five).

There were two redeeming factors to this game. The first was the temperature. It was a mild 72 degrees – perfect baseball weather. And just as I had feared during the first night, the Pirates ruined it. The second bright spot had nothing to do with the Pirates. It was in fact, on the Mets side of my scorecard. In the “notes” section, I wrote “1,419 all-time hits for David Wright, most in Mets history.” It wasn’t a huge deal for me, personally. I’m not against David Wright, but I couldn’t care less about how many hits he has or will ever get. I wasn’t happy that he got the record-tying and record-breaking hits against the Pirates. But I couldn’t help but smile when No. 1,219 dribbled through the infield.

Since I moved to New York, I’ve always had an affinity for the Mets. I decided that since I was living in a new city, I would pick a baseball team to follow (but not necessarily root for). I’d always been a hater of the Evil Empire so that left me with the Mets. I found that they were a lot like the Pirates. Sure, the payroll was a lot higher, but they would win a little and ultimately collapse. They were the Pirates in pinstripes. They were the North Shore in Queens. They were lovable losers. So when I saw everyone in the stadium rise to their feet to give Wright a standing ovation, both during and after the game, I was happy that the Mets had accomplished something this season. Just like the previous game when the Mets fans felt bad for me and the Pirates won, I felt sorry for the Mets fans and their team won.

Want to dig lower than rock bottom? Have a Pirates fan feel sorry for you.

Final Conclusions

After my two-day solo set with the Mets and the Pirates, I learned a few things.

  • If a game is between two natural-born losers, it’s probably better to watch it with a buddy. There are far too many times during games like that when you want to turn to the person next to you to say, “Wow, that was just awful, these guys actually get paid to play baseball?” Saying that to a stranger who is rooting for the opposing team won’t get you far in the making friends department. There are certainly positives to sitting by yourself, alone with your thoughts and observations, but I feel those times are best reserved for the middle of the wilderness on a rainy day.
  •  Above all else, I want my team to win. Sure, I’ve been rooting for a losing team for 19 years, but I’ve never gotten used to losing. The weather was nicer on the second night and the game was much quicker, but there was no comparison to how much fun I had the first night. Even though I felt very little pride after the win on the first night (a Mets fan told me, “Raise the Jolly Roger” after the game and I replied, “for what it’s worth.”), it was at least something that felt like pride. The second game left me ashamed the way a parent is ashamed when a child gets caught shoplifting. I just want them to do better so people think better of them and myself and so we can all have a more positive existence. If I just became numb to their losing ways, I wouldn’t feel anything when they won. And when it comes down to it, winning feels so much better because I know how much losing hurts.
  •  A night out at the ball park always has inherent value, even if you’re alone, your team is losing and hardly anyone else is in the stadium. Going to a baseball game is simple and refreshing. Ever since I moved to the city, I’ve been surrounded by grey concrete and dirty sidewalks. There’s no grass and few trees. There is no open space. But when you exit the concourse into the seating area at the ball park, the green of the grass and the red of the dirt and the immaculate white bases offer a refreshing view that few other places in the city can. There’s a feeling of good, clean innocence. It’s nine men wearing gloves and ball caps trying to catch a ball. It’s simple and it’s like a spa for the sports fan’s senses. It’s about buying an overpriced hotdog and beer because it feels right at a ball game, and possibly nowhere else. It’s a throwback to my childhood, which were fun and simpler times.
  •  Even though my team sucks and so do the Mets, watching them suck in person is far more enjoyable than watching them suck on television. To hear the organ, smell the food and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” lessons the blow of such bad baseball. The fan experience is underrated in this regard, because there is such tradition associated with baseball. Football might be more popular in America, but there’s no game more deeply rooted in the tradition of our country than baseball. Ask Ken Burns.
  •  Being a Pirates fan still isn’t easy and it probably won’t be for a long time. The Pirates need sustainable pitching. They need better minor league development so they can bring more players like Andrew McCutchen up through the system and make an impact at the big league level. Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes are terrible and are just the latest in a long line of poor free-agent off-season acquisitions.
  •  The Pirates need to get better and so do the Mets. Fans have been waiting awhile for these teams to be good again. All fans, except for Browns fans and Flyers fans have that right. And if they don’t get better? Damn it, I’ll still be there. If I’m still living in New York City when next May rolls around, I’ll be clearing my schedule on the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th.

Because my name is Pete and the most important thing I learned was that I’m a Class 3 Pirates fan.

Coming Events: A closer look at the Solo in Enemy Territory Project

Earlier this week, I got a text from my buddy that said the following:

“Driving to Champaign this Saturday for PSU at Illinois. Alone. Guest blog post for Keystone Sports Spot?”

No one had ever asked to do this for me before so I jumped on the opportunity. After all, the more writers the better and I’d never say to an old college journalist friend. After I told him it should be a cool take, he replied:

“Especially since I’m the loser driving an hour and 45 minutes to see a game alone. Haha.”

To which I replied:

“I’m going to two Mets/Pirates games alone this week.”

My buddy didn’t hesitate to say, “Hahaha. You win!”

That’s when we came up with an editorial idea.

So what’s the point in my telling you about our little mobile exchange? Well first, if you didn’t realize it already, I’ll be having my close friend Pat on the Keystone Sports Spot to guest blog about the Penn State vs. Illinois football game this Saturday. Like myself, Pat graduated from Penn State in 2010 and he was also a journalism major.

Second, we’ll be putting together a 2-part series documenting our recent sports experiences from some pretty unique angles. Pat is venturing from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. to Champaign, Ill., alone. He, of course, will be going as a Penn State fan.

Penn State had a rough season before it even started. Up to this point, Penn State has been ordered to pay $60 million in sanctions, had a four-year football postseason ban enacted, and all of its wins before this season dating back to 1998 have been vacated. What’s more, Penn State cannot win the Big Ten Championship and has lost 17 scholarship players since March because of personal reasons, NCAA sanctions or dismissals. Essentially, Penn State isn’t playing for anything right now. What could make their next matchup fairly less relevant?  They’re playing against a 2-2 Fighting Illini team that lost at home last week to Louisiana Tech, 52-24. Illinois will be lucky to have a winning season, let alone contend for a Big Ten Championship or a decent bowl game.

Not the greatest matchup.

Similarly, I will be attending two Pirates vs. Mets game at Citi Field this week, also by myself. This situation threatens to be more agonizing than the Penn State game. It’s September and neither the Mets nor the Pirates are even close to making the playoffs.

Before the Pirates series started, the Mets had a record of 69-83. They were the fourth-worst team in the National League and were 23 games back of the division lead. Fan apathy is at a season high.

The Pirates were faring only slightly better. Before they met the Mets, the Buccos had a record of 75-77 and were 16.5 games back of the division leading Reds. More noticeable, however, was the Pirates’ epic collapse this season the second year in a row. Only a few months ago, the Pirates were leading the NL Central and were 16 games over .500. Not only did it appear that they would finish with their first winning season in 19 years (yes, with a 1 and a 9), they appeared to be a possible playoff team. At the beginning of this season, a second wild-card spot was added to both leagues, further enhancing the Pirates shot at the post season. Their odds increased by 12 percent, in fact. But somehow, the Pirates blew it and are on the verge of completing the most epic collapse in the history of baseball.

Essentially, we will be documenting the irrelevance of four teams – two early in their season and two late in theirs – and chronicling our experiences of going solo into enemy territory. If you have no idea what to expect, don’t worry. Neither do we.

Enjoy.

– Pete Dombrosky

Editor-in-chief, Keystone Sports Spot

Kyle Stark Raving Mad

So when I posted my last blog entry last night entitled “How Clueless is Pirates Assistant GM Kyle Stark?” I didn’t think that my opinion of the Pirates assistant GM could get much lower. I noted that he had been obnoxious and disrespectful to two former Pirates players who approached him about jobs within the organization, one of which had helped the Pirates win at least one World Series. This offended me as a Pirates fan, a baseball fan in general and as a decent human being who will always show respect to my elders.

But just like I should stop being surprised that the Pirates keep having losing seasons and employing people like Kyle Stark, I should probably stop being surprised that Kyle Stark continues to come off even more as an ignorant lunatic.

Late last night, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic posted on his blog the next clue into Stark’s strange and disconcerting journey down the rabbit hole (and his attempt to drag the Pirates minor league system with him). Kovacevic explained in his Friday column that it was an email sent by Stark on June 28 to his minor league managers and coaches (Pirates GM Neil Huntington was copied on the email; Pirates principal owner Bob Nutting and president Frank Coonelly were not).

The following is the email from Kovacevic’s blog and my analysis/response to Mr. Stark (my comments in bold):

From: Stark, Kyle

Sent: Thursday, June 28, 2012 5:22 PM

Subject: SECOND HALF – OUR WHAT

So what do we need to get done in the second half?

Over the last four days, we’ve reconnected with our WHY — turning boys into men so that we can re-bond a city with a baseball team and change the world through baseball.

Turning boys into men isn’t really the goal here, it’s pretty much to turn young men into competent baseball players who can eventually contribute at the big league level, which is especially important because there’s a lot of baseball yet to play and the major leaguers who are already up with the club are bound to get tired in a month or two. Remember that epic collapse last season? Yeah, it happened around the end of July and we should try to solidify the team’s depth with some confident youngsters to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year. I’ll give you credit for stressing that the team needs to re-bond with city, but it might be saying a bit much to “change the world through baseball.” Let’s just try to change the team with a winning season and go from there.

We’ve refocused and clarified our HOW — relentless, systematic and cohesive. All of these discussions have been tied to the ‘one thing’ that we need to move forward in the second half – we’ve trained them up, now we need to help them trust it and transfer it on the field. 

You say you’ve trained them up, but you better make sure that they don’t need some further training. In fact, they should probably just keep training for the rest of the season because that’s sort of what ball players do. They keep working on getting better and they never stop striving to be better. A few extra grounders and some time in the cage couldn’t hurt…

Which brings us to our WHAT …

As we talk about turning boys into men and developing them as PROs, this requires a few key characteristics. Those characteristics match our PRO values and are vividly captured by Bernie’s story about Olympic thrower Mac Wilkins and his views on what makes an Olympic champion. Mac explained that gold medal winners live by three golden rules — Dream and be creative like a Hippie. Have the discipline and perseverance of a Boy Scout. Be crazy and take risks like the Hells Angels. …

Woah, hang on a second. Those sound like three types of people who have very little to do with each other. And if I’m being honest, I don’t think any one person should possess all of those characteristics. In fact, if I had to come up with a single person that does, it would definitely be this guy…

Kyle Stark’s ideal professional baseball player.

1. Dream like a Hippie — PASSION — Elite people have big dreams, are driven by those dreams, and believe that they can achieve them.

Yes, and hippies take acid, dance around in the mud and listen to Hendrix. Then, they climb to the roof and jump off because the believe they can fly.

2. Prepare like a Boy Scout — RELENTLESS — Elite people have extreme work ethic, train exhaustively to get better, and prepare fully so they can be their best when their best is needed.

Spot on, Kyle. If this was your only suggestion in the email, I’d say the Pirates farm system will be doing quite well with its development by September.

3. Trust like a Hell’s Angel — OWNERSHIP — Elite people trust their preparation, own their strengths and weaknesses, know what they do best and build conviction around it, and compete with reckless abandon.

Well, I agree with you that trust is important and ownership is key, but let’s take a step back with the Hell’s Angels stuff. It’s probably not the best group of people to strive to be…

The biggest impact we can have in the second half is developing more Hell’s Angels.

Of course! Wait, what?

Well, now that I have given it literally no thought, drank some varnish and closed the car door on my head numerous times, this is starting to sound like a pretty solid idea.

We are really good at working before games. We excel at developing Boy Scouts. However, men play in the Big Leagues and that requires the reckless abandon of a Hell’s Angel. 

Exactly. Because when I see successful teams like the Yankees, Reds, Nationals, etc., it always seems like they just don’t give a damn. In fact, last night I saw Robinson Cano field a grounder and intentionally beam the runner with the ball right in the head. Then he stuck his hat down his pants and tackled the home plate umpire. And then, the Nats announced they were going to keep Steven Strasburg in for about 250 (give or take) pitches every game because the best medicine for a surgically repaired elbow is reckless abandon.

This is a mentality that is developed. It is a harder mentality to develop with less control, more gray area, and less science.  However, it is the separation between good coaches and great ones, good development systems and great ones, and good organizations and great ones.  Training guys to unleash what they’ve got is an art and needs to be our WHAT in the second half.

As you do some research on the Hell’s Angels, you come across three main qualities that set them apart and symbolize their mystique:

I’m going to guess 1. Their propensity for brutal violence — including homicide — against other gangs as well as innocent bystanders. 2. Their willingness to engage in drug-and-alcohol-fueled crime sprees. 3. And oh, I don’t know, their U.S. Department of Justice given status as an organized crime syndicate and public perception as some of the scariest people on motorcycles you’d never want to encounter in your life.

1. Swagger — There is an extreme confidence in themselves, their brothers, and what they’re about. They carry a chip on their shoulder and dare others to knock it off. They have an edge. Do our players have an edge? Do we have an edge? What are we doing to develop that edge?

The Pirates haven’t had a winning season in 19 years. That should qualify as a big enough chip on their shoulders. But I guess if you really wanted to piss them off and lose focus on playing baseball you could have Navy SEALs come to camp and put them through a rigorous training regimen that even common military personnel would find taxing. That ought to make men out of them!

2. Reckless abandon — Not only do they have an edge, but they live life on the edge. They’re described as free-spirited, which can be defined as somewhat irresponsible. 

So you want your players to be somewhat irresponsible? Well I guess the Red Sox did get a TON of good media last year after they started being irresponsible in the locker room. I like where your head’s at Kyle…

They risk. They have no fear. They have a care-free and “care-less” attitude. You could argue that on one hand they care so much about who they are and what they do, but on the other hand they could care less in some areas such as what others think of them, of potential risks, of probabilities, etc. They’re more focused on possibilities than probabilities. They’re not consumed or swayed by what others think. They sell out to their purpose and live life fully and in-the-moment (“this pitch”). There has actually been a leadership book written about this approach to life, i.e. living life, experiencing it, and learning from your experiences. 

I bet it’s entitled “The Hell’s Angels: Why Modern Day Politics and Sports Would Benefit From Their In-Your-Face-Style” By Chuck Manson.

Their name comes from World War II fighting squadrons known for their extraordinary and dangerous feats of aviation. Do our players play with reckless abandon? Do we have reckless abandon? What are we doing to develop this mentality?

Well, I suppose we could bring in some Navy SEALs and…oh, already suggested that. I guess we could make them all fly fighter jets and shoot at each other? (And as far as the major league club goes, signing Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas and Nate McLouth in the off-season should count as reckless abandon, right?)

3. Bound by brotherhood — At the end of the day, they are fiercely loyal to each other. It is about the group and the bonds that exist between members. They can fight with each other, but someone external better not say anything negative about them. They love each other. Are our players bound by brotherhood? Are we bound by brotherhood? What are we doing to develop this bond?

That settles it. All players from every minor league team and managers too, grab a knife, cut your hand and shake on it. We’re gonna be blood brothers!

As the calendar turns to July, we are selling out and committing to this approach. We’ve trained them. We need to train their trust now. Our focus should be on developing Hell’s Angels. That requires …

Or you could teach them how to bunt, steal bases, turn double plays correctly and be mindful to know the situation while on defense and offense. Ahhhh, no, you know what? You’re right, that’s what all the other teams do. We need to be different. And…not good…at baseball.

– Building confidence (helping players know what they do well, perfecting those traits so we’re not just working on weaknesses, speaking greatness into them, etc.)

But working on weaknesses would probably be a good idea too. You know, so they aren’t so bad at basic fundamentals. Did I mention bunting?

– Encouraging risk (pushing players beyond their comfort zones, putting them in risky situations, viewing the risk as success rather than its result, celebrating risk taking, etc.)

Damn straight! Who says we can’t all try to stretch singles into triples? Bollocks to the system, let’s skip practice and go base jumping!

– Going alongside them (being a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage,’ asking questions rather than giving answers, celebrating aggressive failure and the lessons that come from it, etc.)

– Adding chaos and intensity to our training (get them out of their comfort zone, add stress, add competition to the work day, etc.)

Yes, the more stress the better. Because I know for a fact that scientists and doctors have no idea if stress can negatively impact a person’s health or not. Whatever doesn’t kill ya only makes you stronger, right Mr. Stark? Besides, playing anywhere from 135-144 games over the course of a summer to try to earn a promotion to the majors while staying healthy and keeping their numbers high enough to avoid a demotion probably isn’t stressful enough. I know, let’s light their gloves on fire and hold their families hostage during games! That should really get them out of their comfort zone!

– Preparing them to compete rather than training all the time (get the focus on the competition, shift our purpose to preparation rather than working a physical technique, outward focus rather than inward, etc.)

But what if they don’t know the physical techniques yet? Yeah, you’re right. They could probably find some Tom Emanski videos on YouTube in their spare time anyway.

– Getting them outside of themselves and into the team (care about someone else, take care of each other, have each other’s back, etc.)

Yeah they definitely gotta have each other’s backs, just in case a rival motorcycle gang rides into town and tries to take their turf!

For this to happen, we must get out of our comfort zones and flex our own Hell’s Angel muscle. We must be extreme in our commitment to these ideas. This is ultimately about developing a mentality and a culture where this becomes our identity. A culture of risk and less control is unsettling for us control freaks! 

…and successful baseball clubs, but go on…

However, it is the answer to letting skill out and WHAT we need to do in the second half.

LB and Bernie will be following up with more details as we move forward. Sell out and commit to this. Coach with swagger, reckless abandon, and bounded by brotherhood and we’ll see those same traits in our players.

HOKA HEY — It’s a good day to die!!!

Yes, I’d say we’re all about ready to commit suicide after that. Thanks for the pep talk Mr. Stark.

How Clueless is Pirates Assistant GM Kyle Stark?

Disclaimer: I want to start this off with full transparency. Most of this blog entry is made up of some puzzle pieces I’ve put together over the last few days. Some of my conclusions are based on speculation and I by no means am selling this as complete fact. My only intention in the following is to make you think a little bit and consider some certain possibilities that seem to be in the tea leaves. That being said, I’ll get right after it.

I’m a big fan of the Pittsburgh sports coverage done by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I follow just about all of their beat writers pretty closely because I consider them to be the best at what they do and the most entertaining while they do it. But without a doubt, my favorite writer is columnist Dejan Kovacevic. He’s a sports columnist that writes about every professional Pittsburgh team, as well as the basketball and football teams of Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia.

Lately, Kovacevic has been writing a lot about the second epic Pirates collapse in as many years, and he’s been right to do so. At one point this season, the Pirates were 16 games over .500. Now, they are 74-74. They’ve lost 10 of their last 12 and it certainly seems like it’ll take a miracle to prevent their 20th straight losing season. Some of Kovacevic’s columns have focused on how bad the players have been, while others have faulted coach Clint Hurdle, as well as the Pirates front office. I’ve been most interested in the latter.

On September 13, he wrote a column entitled “Pirates clueless about winning.In this piece, he absolutely grills Pirates management for innumerable mistakes ranging from poor off-season free agent acquisitions to  improper signings at the trade deadline. But the core of the story focuses around the inability of the Pirates organization to teach good fundamentals to young players so they are adequately prepared once they get to the big leagues. He cites the example of Pirates assistant GM Kyle Stark bringing in United States Navy SEALS to the team’s Florida Instructional League sessions in Bradenton. Rather than have these young players focus on fundamentals they’re clearly lacking, Stark said the goal was “to give our guys a unique training experience to reinforce various lessons we stress all the time pertaining to leadership, team building and mental toughness.” Kovacevic scoffs at this statement (and rightly so) because that was valuable time the young players could use to practice the fundamentals of baseball, i.e. the most basic concepts ball players need to know to succeed at their sport.

Not long after he wrote the SEALS article, Kovacevic explored, among other things, the opinions outside the Pirates organization considering the team’s minor league fundamentals. On September 18, he wrote another article entitled “Nutting correct to seek answers.The one glaring graf he used as evidence of how poorly other teams view the Pirates minor league development was the following:  I could fill the sports section with examples, or I could simply share what a farm director for another National League team told me Tuesday: “What the Pirates are doing down there is deplorable.” Again, he squarely puts the blame for this on the shoulders of Stark, the Pirates farm director.

That brings me to tonight. Kovacevic wrote a blog entry entitled “Wakeup Call: Do NOT let players off hook.” Here, he writes a few short points on why the Pirates players are also to blame for the team’s epic collapse. But that isn’t what intrigued me, it was one of the comments left by a reader below the story. This is what it said:
BarryVanBonilla
September 20th, 2012 – 12:08 am
By all means, let’s not let the players off the hook. But going back to your recent work, let’s not forget who assembled this team, who teaches it, especially those who have been around long to be attributable to the present regime (by no means excusing the Littlefield and Bonifay reigns of error).There is a cultural problem here, that I have discerned spending time around some of the individuals in question. I want to share some of what I’ve seen and been told, though I wish some of those directly involved would go on the record (since some have nothing fo lose).Your piece of a few days back captured issues I have seen firsthand, and heard from former players.  What I heard was reflective of systemic problems with priorities (team-building with consultants, core strength training, lectures, etc.) that took time away from on-field drills. As for the drills, there were complaints about them being formulaic, with inconsistent quality of training and a lack of effort expended toward making sure players kept doing something until they did it right.The more ephemeral criticisms centered around “too many (development) guys tapping on f******* computers and iPhones and not enough time doing hands-on training.” Also, too much “hairy fairy consultant ****,” presumably at the expense of hands-on training. I heard variations on these same criticisms from multiple individuals, and what I saw of Kyle Stark and his people at Pirate City was pretty uninspiring, inasmuch as they didn’t interact with players as much as with each other and their devices. There was a hell of a lot of standing around by players listening to lectures I couldn’t hear. The other criticism feeds off of the SEALS stuff. The military mindset is very much apparent if you spend time around them, and more so in the telling of people who have spent more time than I have. It has been described as offputting by people, and a lot of players appear not be responding well to it, according to its critics.

The other universal criticism of Stark is that he is not nearly knowledgeable enough about the actual game (as opposed to the theoretical game) to do his job effectively. Two former players told me that they approached Frank Coonelly about jobs with the organization. Both were sent to Stark. One former player told me Stark was an “obnoxious, disrespectful little ****.” My bias having met him is that this captures it quite well and applies to some of his staff as well (one of his direct reports laughed condescendingly at the idea that Kris Medlen would amount to anything, because he is too small, something I find amusing as I write this an hour or so after he tied Whitey Ford’s record of 21 consecutive starts resulting in a win for the Braves).

The other player was more specific (and riotously funny). He met Stark, who asked the guy what his experience was in baseball. He rattled off his years playing and coaching at several levels. Stark looked at (and tapped) on his laptop, asking: “Who did you play for? I haven’t heard of you.” The gentleman pointed to the wall behind them and said, “That’s me right there.” It was a large reproduction of one of the three world series celebrations since 1960 (left vague to protect the irate). Stark appeared not to “give a **** ” as it was described to me. Neither player believes Coonelly bothered to tell Stark who he was interviewing, which is borne out by the descriptions of the incidents.

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. They talk about legacy, they bring these guys to spring training, put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job they’re shuffled off to Stark. Now, it may well be that the individuals are not good potential coaches. To me, however, the going on and on about legacy and history, juxtaposed with the way they treat people who were important to the franchise, is telling. Several people told me that Clint Hurdle has had more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.

In sum, Neal Huntington’s team may be getting better, they may suck, but nobody I know (myself included) thinks they have any ability to relate to human beings very well. In my view, absent that ability (or a willingness to subcontract that part of your job to others who do have it), you’ve already failed. No matter how good your “metrics” are, you’ll ultimately wear out your welcome. My own impressions, outside of a select few people, is that this is a soulless, corporate operation that just happens to be in the business of baseball. That starts at the top, and that is why I don’t hold out a lot of hope.

I thought it was just a rant from some unusually intelligent Pirates fan at first, but throughout it, he/she kept declaring themselves close to the organization in one way or another. He/she said they had spent considerable time around the Pirates management and players in question and drew some conclusions from what he/she was told by certain people. Not only that, but below the comment, Kovacevic commented further about the commentator by adding:

DK: All I’ll add is that I can vouch for this individual’s veracity as someone close enough to make the above comments. Oh, and I’ll add that Huntington promoted Stark and Greg Smith last winter to the titles of assistant GM.”

So, we should be able to conclude that Kovacevic basically backed up the commentator’s validity. These were words written by someone who knew what they were talking about.

(STAY WITH ME, I’M GETTING TO THE POINT SHORTLY)

In the comment, the person really attacked Stark and gave some examples. Primarily, I want you to consider what he/she said about two former players who approached Pirates president Frank Coonelly. Coonelly sent them both to Stark. One said that Stark was obnoxious and disrespectful (TO A FORMER PIRATES PLAYER WHOM THE TEAM PRESIDENT RESPECTED ENOUGH TO REFER). What’s worse, the Stark didn’t even know who the second former Pirate was. That’s when the former player pointed to a a picture of himself in a World Series celebration.

The commentator notes at this point that it was a picture of one of the World Series celebrations since 1960 (this is how he protects the player’s identity). So that player could have been on the Pirates team during the 1960,’71 or ’79 World Series win.

Now in the next graf of the comment, the author writes the following:

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. They talk about legacy, they bring these guys to spring training, put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job they’re shuffled off to Stark. Now, it may well be that the individuals are not good potential coaches. To me, however, the going on and on about legacy and history, juxtaposed with the way they treat people who were important to the franchise, is telling. Several people told me that Clint Hurdle has had more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.

This is where the commentator may have given away the identities of the two former players who approached Stark. “…put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job, they’re shuffled off to Stark.” Earlier this season, I can remember only one instance when former players were brought back and put in the dugout for a game. Those two players were Bill Mazeroski and Bill Virdon. If you don’t remember, here’s the article documenting it. Also, in the commentator’s final sentence of that graf he points out that “several people told me that Clint Hurdle has more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.” I can back this up by a quote from Hurdle reported by MLB.com after Major League Baseball told Virdon and Mazeroski they weren’t allowed to be in the dugout because they exceeded the manager limit.

“I was told that’d be the end of it. It did not surprise me,” Hurdle admitted prior to Wednesday night’s second game of the interleague series with Minnesota at PNC Park. “It wasn’t really within the rules and regulations of the game, which I might have overlooked in my excitement to get them involved.”

It seems completely possible that the two players the commentator noted in his rant were Bill Virdon and Bill Mazeroski.

Both Virdon and Maz fit the criteria of being on one of the three World Series championship teams from 1960-1979. And I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to Stark when I assume that he knows who Bill Mazeroski is. Pretty much anyone who knows a lick about baseball recognizes the name “Mazeroski.” So that leaves me to believe that Kyle Stark didn’t know who Bill Virdon was.

I know that Bill Virdon wasn’t the most high-profile player in Pirates history. But he did play for the team for 11 years (1956–1965, 1968) and was the manager of the Pirates from 1972-1973. He is a notable player in the team’s history and it’d be a damn shame of Stark didn’t know who he was. If in fact it was Virdon who approached Stark, which then prompted Stark to Google his name, it would only speak more to the fact that Stark is completely clueless and has no business being in the position he’s in

And don’t forget that Kyle Stark was obnoxious and disrespectful to them and was completely clueless as to who one of them was. Can you imagine how terrible it would feel to be one of those old time Pirates greats and have an assistant GM treat you like that? Hell, even if it wasn’t either of those players who were the ones mentioned in the blog comments. If you were a Pirates player who had won a championship with the team during the glory days, when the foundation of the fan base was established for generations to come, and you were treated like that by a current Pirates employee, wouldn’t you just feel the urge to smack him upside the head and give him a lesson about how meaningless he was to the organization now?

I know it’s a very roundabout way to say that the Pirates organization clearly makes bad personnel decisions from top to bottom, but it’s an entertaining way to look at it.Again, I’m not declaring it as fact that Maz and Virdon were the two unnamed players in the comments of Kovacevic’s blog. I could be putting together coincidental puzzle pieces that aren’t actually there. But consider what I’ve provided you and draw your own conclusions and don’t forget that regardless of who the two players were, Kyle Stark treated them like garbage. Either of the unnamed players would have been prime targets for autograph seekers because regardless of their names, they were Pirates. And now, the Pirates are a joke of an organization and the fans deserve better than the last 19 (and soon to be 20) years of losing.

And if I am grasping at straws, then I have at least provided you with Kovacevic’s insight that is clearly undeniable. Either way, I’ve made my point.

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